Keeping the faith: Obisidian's Feargus Urquhart on RPGs and PCs
In this reprint from the December 2003 issue of Game Developer magazine, Feargus Urquhart opens up about why he left Interplay to found Obsidian Entertainment, the challenges of starting your own studio and the eternal promise of PC development.
Feargus Urquhart likes RPG titles a lot, as he should, given his past involvement in their creation. For the last six years Feargus has been involved in Black Isle Studios' most successful titles, including Baldur's Gate
, Planescape: Torment
, Icewind Dale
, and Fallout
. Before that he was involved with other RPG titles at Interplay, Black Isle Studios' parent company.
However, he and Interplay were looking toward different futures. "Interplay changed directions a number of years ago and put most of their efforts behind next-gen consoles," Feargus told us. "However, I think think PCs have a place as a gaming platform."
Following his instincts, he looked into developing his own company, and with steerage help from BioWare, launched Obsidian Entertainment earlier this year. We took some time to talk to Feargus about the challenges of starting up Obsidian, why the RPG format works for him, and the future of the PC as a gaming platform.
How does Obsidian treat the issue surrounding non-compete agreements with its employers?
Feargus Urquhart: We don't have non-compete agreements with employees other than they can't compete with us while they are working at Obsidian. We chose not to have employees sign one because they are questionably enforceable; if someone wants to leave then we either need to let them go or do something about it. Having someone feel trapped with a company because of a non-compete doesn't help their morale on a day-to-day basis, which doesn't really help the company.
What about Obsidian sets it apart from other studios?
FU: Obsidian's strengths are a wealth of experience in the business and process of making games and the ability to make those two diverging aspects work together. When we approach a new project we are able to tell a publisher what it will take to make the game, how long, and that we will budget for it effectively. Coupled with that, we have a very strong group of guys making games, with the core group having over 50 years of combined industry experience.
Has your life become more chaotic or less since launching Obsidian?
FU: Weirdly enough it's become less chaotic. With Obsidian there seems to be both fewer and more working parts at the same time. If we need a new computer, we just go online and order it, while at Interplay it might have taken three months, six e-mails, and three meetings.
That's not to say it will stay that easy. If we end up going to more than two or three teams in the future, we will have to get more structured, which will mean that we will need to have more approval processes. However, things can get a little chaotic when it takes six week to get medical insurance going for the company because of all these hoops to jump through and forms and more forms and more forms and more forms to fill out. Did I mention the forms? All in all, though, it's been a great experience.
What kind of structures will you put in place to prevent decisions from being mired down in committees and meetings?
FU: It just has to do with focus. My opinion is that Interplay lost this focus as it grew and became a publisher. For us to stay on track, we are going to make sure that the company's largest priorities always relate to the development of our products.
Why is it that so many developers eschew PCs in favor of console development?
FU: When talking to publishers in the industry, most are much more interested in hearing about ideas for your $4 million console game than your great $2 million PC game. I don't mean to fault publishers by saying this, because in many ways sales data supports why this is the case. However, there are still a bunch of games that sell very well on the PC, and they don't require console licensing fees.
What surprising turns have you seen the game development industry take?
FU: I am somewhat surprised by the lack of support for the PC as a gaming platform right now. It's not that I just want to make PC games instead of console games, but there are certain kinds of games that I would like to make that just work better
on the PC. I would hope those ideas would actually be for games that people would buy, but it's hard to get other people in the industry excited about a game if it is PC only. There are companies that are still very successful on the PC, like Blizzard, but many see that success as an anomaly for some reason.
What five key components make up a successful RPG game?
FU: In no particular order, they are a player-driven story, a robust character development system, believable non-player characters, heroic quests, and a living world.
You can find more great stories from old issues of Game Developer Magazine in the GDMag Archive section of the GDC Vault.